THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENSNR
Beating to the punch an upcoming Hollywood release (starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore) and the Broadway transfer of an acclaimed musical, Albert Maysles and his team have put together outtakes from the original Grey Gardens, shot more than three decades ago by Albert and his late brother David. Critics and audiences may be divided all over again about the purpose and meaning of this new film, but no one will deny the impact of the original or its enduring fascination.
The Beales of Grey Gardens is not a remake or sequel to Grey Gardens, but rather an entirely different movie about the same two characters-a mother and daughter related to the Bouvier family but living in squalor. The footage covers similar territory as the 1975 film: the love-hate relationship between "Big" Edie and "Little" Edie as they carry on in their dilapidated East Hampton mansion.
If the two protagonists seem as if they exist in a world gone by, like real-life Norma Desmond "crazies," they are also smart, well-cultured, and know a fair amount about current events. In the unearthed material, the range of discussion topics is different than before and there is more interaction with other people, though, as in Grey Gardens, it is the moody, rambling "Little" Edie who dominates everything with her faded beauty, campy outfits, seductive banter and optimistic vision.
One may well wonder why some of the outtakes became outtakes-there are very interesting bits of business here, which easily could have supplemented the first production: for example, discussions about Jackie Kennedy and other relatives, Democrats vs. Republicans, religious belief and astrology, and war and peace. Also, there are shots of "Little" Edie going to an East Hampton church, reacting hysterically to a small fire in the house, and advising a young male relative on his career path. Most poignantly, at the climax of the film, Maysles cuts together small fragments of the outtakes of "Little" Edie and sets the montage to the Jerome Kern song, "I Dream Too Much." (The sequence is all the more haunting when you realize that Edie, Edith and David Maysles are deceased.)
Like Grey Gardens, The Beales of Grey Gardens uses no voice-over or explanatory titling: We experience the cinéma-vérité in its "pure" form. Back in 1975 this was more novel than it is today, what with the proliferation of similar kinds of films through the decades (not to mention the dreaded "reality-television" genre). Still, the immediacy and power of the sounds and images come through, in part because of the technique and also because of the ever-captivating Beales. (Edith shines the most during her impromptu and surprising poetry recitations.)
But some have never been comfortable with this kind of film and feel Grey Gardens was especially invasive and exploitative because the subjects didn't seem to realize the spectacle they were making of themselves. On the other hand, it is hard to say where the line should be drawn in cinéma-vérité or if it should be drawn at all. No doubt, The Beales of Grey Gardens will resurrect fierce debates among viewers. One hopes a forthcoming DVD will provide material about this issue and possibly more background about the making and reception of the 1975 film. For example, Jackie Kennedy's face-saving reaction after hearing about Grey Gardens could make a great short segment for another documentary.
The Beales of Grey Gardens deserves a thoughtful look-and a lively argument.